It feels like I’ve been bouncing around in the truck, checking pastures with my dad all my life.
Growing up on Greener Pastures Ranching has given me a different world view than most kids my age. Even when I was young, I understood that we need to take care of our environment. I even asked my dad one time when I was very young, “Dad, you work for nature, don’t you?” I was taught that we need to take care of all aspects of nature, from the soil-life, to the water cycle, the insects, and all other living organisms in our system. It all needs to have balance. We need to look at things on the farm as a whole instead of managing one thing at a time.
As an example, many farms have to deal with a “weed” problem from time to time. Neighbouring pastures around us are filled with buttercup, scentless chamomile, Canada thistle and more, but they don’t seem to understand why. Most farmers resort to spraying or tillage, but is there a better long-term solution?
First off, you may be wondering why I put quotation marks around the word “weed.” For as long as I can remember, my dad has always said, “There’s no such thing as a weed,” and the more I learned throughout the years, the more I understood that this statement was a fact, not just an opinion. Every plant has a purpose in nature. Those “weeds” have a job to do. They heal the soil. The word “weed” is just a nickname for a plant that isn’t wanted.
Some things that can cause “weeds” to invade your pasture are overgrazing, droughts, or a disturbance of some kind like tillage or fire. However, these plants have some benefits — they protect the soil and hold it together. They bring vital nutrients from the subsoil to their leaves so that when they are recycled, those nutrients are released into the topsoil. They may have a strong root system, or deep taproots that open up the soil. They add organic matter to the soil and provide channels for water and air, and tunnels for worms and other organisms. They are also quick to flower, so they can attract beneficial insects. Having a few “weeds” is not a bad thing. We just don’t want them to take over an area.
Spraying these “weeds” on your farm doesn’t fix your problem like you would think. It only deals with the symptom of that problem, and you will have to spray again and again. The “weeds” are a scab to heal your land, and if you get rid of them, it’s like ripping off a scab. You start bleeding and the healing process has to start all over again. The more you do that, the harder it is to heal each time. So instead of getting rid of the “weeds,” let them stay and heal your land. Next year, your land will have more nutrients, healthier soil, and more organisms, so the preferred plants can grow better.
So how do you address the problem? The best way is to use the four grazing concepts: graze period, rest period, animal impact, and stock density (or GRAS).
The graze period is the amount of time that the livestock are in the pasture. This period of time should be short enough so the cows don’t take a second bite on the pasture, and so there’s enough residue left to hold moisture.
The rest period is the amount of time you let the pasture rest without any animals on it. This needs to be long enough to have the plants fully recover and fill their root reserves.
Animal impact is when the livestock puncture the surface of the soil, pushing in seeds, and making it easier for water to soak into the ground.
Stock density is the number of animals you have in a space to make sure that the manure is spread evenly, allowing every plant to get nutrients. It also improves plant utilization.
Plant utilization is the key to weed management. Continuous grazing has low stock density which allows the livestock to pick and choose the yummy plants and leave the “weeds” to prosper, go to seed and spread. What we need is high stock density. The higher we get, the better the plant utilization which means we give every plant the same opportunity to grow. It’s pretty easy to understand why the “weeds” get the upper hand if you continuous graze. You are giving the “weeds” the perfect growing conditions and wiping out all their competition by overgrazing the good plants.
Using these four concepts helps maintain the pasture so it can grow thick, tall, tasty and healthy, but don’t be shocked if there are still a few “weeds.” There should always be some “weeds” in every piece of land. Our bees need food all summer long. It allows them to “bee” happy. Just let the “weeds” do their thing, but if you have to, mowing them can be beneficial as it still leaves the beneficial residue on the soil surface.
One of the “weeds” most farmers don’t like is stinging nettle. Everyone knows not to wear short pants while checking fence at Greener Pastures, but we love stinging nettle. We actually pick it, bag it, and sell it as a tea. It’s loaded with minerals and vitamins. We use it as a spice or make tea out of it. If you add a little honey and put it in the fridge, it makes a very flavourful iced tea. You can get your daily vitamins without any pills.
“Weeds” have a very important role in nature. We need them to keep this planet healthy, and regenerative grazing helps us manage the forage and deal with “weeds” naturally. Come visit us one day at Greener Pastures Ranching and see for yourself why I am just another “weed” hugger.
Dayna Kenyon is 14 years old and is part of Greener Pastures Ranching near Busby, Alta.